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What does it mean for a person to live in a state of perpetual fear?

In the wake of the Ferguson protests that have shaken the nation, it might be a good time to question what it means for a person to live in a state of perpetual fear. Imagined or real, accusations of police brutality and racism have circulated in some circles, and the end result—violence and death—has been deemed unpleasant for many. In times like these, some people may tell oppressed populations to “suck it up,” as if everything in their circumstance was surmountable and controllable.

That might hold true in environments that provide regular, expected amounts of stresses. However, even perceived threats can prove detrimental to a person’s or a population’s psychology. Some studies in public health advise against over-valuing risks, for it might trigger inappropriate long-term stress responses in populations. Prolonged amounts of stress can often exert detrimental, even irreversible biological effects. This may result in a person’s inability to cope appropriately with environmental stresses, leading to erratic behavior that impedes their health, which includes avoidance behavior, aggression, or emotional numbing.

 Ferguson protests and police brutality has led to high amounts of stress, aggression, and emotional numbing in those affected.

The part of the brain that regulates the fear response is the amygdala, which is part of the limbic or “primitive” brain. It is a remnant from the time that humans, as mud monkeys, needed to respond quickly to high levels of stress, such as the perceived presence of predators, hunger, or competition for resources. As the fear center, the amygdala regulates the release of cortisol and other hormones that target other organs in the human body in the “fight or flight” response. Prolonged exposure to cortisol, norepinephrines, and epinephrines can result in an atrophying of these organs, or the molding of these organs to high-stress states. Cortisol also exists in a positive feedback loop that affects the amygdala, leading to a vicious cycle.

Many studies have surveyed the effect of prolonged stresses on populations and their immediate effects, from the increased likelihood of acquiring PTSD, to lasting effects on childhood abuse survivorsChronic stress can increase the likelihood of developing anxiety, heart disease, and memory impairment. The broad spectrum of studies display that living in a state of perpetual fear may hamper the body’s capacity to trigger the appropriate biological responses. In extreme cases it might result in depression, which can then lead to suicidal ideation.

It might seem a stretch to apply the same conditions of say, South African civil conflict childhood survivors (with CPTSD, Continuous Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to the citizens of a town suffering the effects of institutionalized racism. However, it is not that far of a stretch to imagine the possible biological effects on a population that is so divided along racial lines that each fears the other—one withheld from power, one obliged to exert power—and to imagine the consequences for the children growing up in an environment of oppression and fear.

In such situations, simple stress diffusion techniques or altercation prevention training may go a long way in reducing the stresses perceived by individuals or populations. This may require partnerships between public health officials and social services such as child protection programs. Recognizing high stress environments as a serious threat to health may help to mobilize more resources in protecting vulnerable populations. The effects of trauma do not need to last a lifetime, and with more awareness, education, and policy measures we may be able to reduce the amount of Ferguson-related incidents. Police brutality, perceived or real, may start in the head, but it may have lasting effects in other parts of the body.

Feature Image Source: Amy Leonard

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